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Explained: What are microplastics, the new pollutant you are breathing

Microplastics, which are defined as shreds of plastic less than 5 mm in length. The researchers found huge amounts of them in the Arctic snow; their study claims to be the first that contains data on contamination of snow by microplastics.

Written by Mehr Gill , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
August 17, 2019 10:09:48 pm
Microplastic found in ice core samples taken during the U.S.-led Northwest Passage Project is shown on a screen during an 18-day icebreaker expedition that took place in July and August 2019, in a still image taken from a handout video obtained by REUTERS

Tiny particles of plastic, known as microplastics, have been found in the Arctic region and the Alps, carried by the wind, according to a new study that was widely reported this week. The study called for an urgent assessment of the risk of inhalation of the microplastics.

Research findings

Microplastics, which are defined as shreds of plastic less than 5 mm in length. The researchers found huge amounts of them in the Arctic snow; their study claims to be the first that contains data on contamination of snow by microplastics. The study was published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

Several other recent studies have established the presence of microplastics in groundwater in the United States, and in the lakes and rivers of the United Kingdom. A study published in June estimated that the average human ends up consuming at least 50,000 particles of microplastics in food every year.

Where they come from

Microplastics are either manufactured — for instance, microbeads that are used in cosmetics and beauty products — or they are formed when larger pieces of plastic break down. The small, shiny particles advertised as “cooling crystals” in certain toothpastes qualify as microplastics if the ingredients of the toothpaste mention “polyethylene”.

Even so, manufactured microbeads are not a major contributor to microplastic pollution. One of the main contributors to this pollution, instead, is plastic waste, 90% of which is not recycled. Plastic bottles, bags, fishing nets, and food packaging are some examples of the larger pieces that break down into microplastics, eventually finding their way into the soil, water and the air we breathe.

Action by countries

In the recent past, several countries have passed laws to limit the amount of microplastics in the environment. The United States passed a law in 2015 to prohibit the manufacture of rinse-off cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads.

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